“Do you do refunds?” the young woman asked, more anxious than rude. “If I have to bring this back, are you going to refund my money?”

The middle-aged clerk’s flawless façade of niceness concealed deep wells of annoyance.

“Not on sale items,” she said. “Store credit only.”

Kate’s stomach tightened before she could commit to handing over her credit card. The improbably large book – An Illustrated Dictionary of Organic Chemistry, with a ‘Special Supplement on Arcane Substances’ – was a post-Christmas steal at $48.99, half off its recommended retail price. But she didn’t have fifty dollars to spend on a book. Is this too grandiose a gesture? she wondered. Maybe he already has it. The purchase was a kind of wager, a charge against handsome anticipated earnings of a non-monetary variety.

More out of boredom than genuine curiosity the clerk asked, “You studying medicine or something?”

Kate, distracted by buyer’s guilt, took a moment to refocus.

“What? Oh, no. It’s not for me. It’s a birthday present for my… friend, my boy-…, my boyfriend.”

Kate was the sort of strictly honest person who felt like she was lying any time there was no objective authority to prove she wasn’t. Nonetheless, her irresistible will to honesty was competing with new pressures, and she had muddled her response beyond all hope of sorting out truth and falsehood.

Her boyfriend, Chad, was not a med student, nor did he have a January birthday. He was a junior accountant at a stagnant mid-sized firm in the city. They had been together for six years, and the relationship was – like a pair of jeans three seasons removed – comfortable but unmistakably showing signs of wear and age. In any case, the book was not for Chad.

The clerk placed the item in a gleefully branded heavyweight plastic bag, and insisted disingenuously that Kate ‘have a nice day.’ Kate thanked her and lugged the seven-pound book out of the store, into the mirror-tiled mall, and off to a bench where she could sit and giftwrap it.


Six weeks earlier, Kate had been at her friend Calie’s housewarming party, where she fell into an unusually interesting conversation with a chemistry PhD named Marco. He was 30, a dark-haired mix of the Mediterranean and Southeast Asia, with a big affectionate smile, a solid, lean frame, and fetchingly fitted out in grey and black natural fibres. Kate was not an unattractive specimen herself. At almost 26 she had barely added a pound since she was 17. Still slim and stylish, however, she had nonetheless begun to take on the look of the permanently hitched. She wore little makeup or jewellery, kept her hair longish and neatly swept away from her face, and carried herself with an air of general satisfaction tinged by creeping boredom. She had been looking forward to an evening without Chad in tow.

Marco was there as the guest of one of their host’s closest guy friends, Nick. After the usual introductions and small talk about jobs, she and Marco fell comfortably into a pair of overstuffed leather chairs and a conversation that touched lightly on books, politics, celebrities, and recent films, before they stumbled onto a topic of particularly keen mutual interest: etymology.

“You know what expression I love?” Marco offered, “ ‘One fell swoop.’ People use it all the time. But what does fell mean? Nobody knows.”

Kate tried to recall the one undergraduate course she’d take in Elizabethan drama. “Doesn’t fell mean… fierce?”

“Right,” Marco was impressed, “but nobody who uses that expression knows that. Some words are so familiar we don’t even think about what they mean.”

“Totally. Like, I remember my dad being in hospital – he’s diabetic – back when I was taking first-year Latin. My whole life I’d been hearing the term ‘hypodermic needle’, and all of a sudden it occurred to me: hypodermic just means ‘under the skin’.” 

“Or, like, euthanasia,” Marco suggested.

“Yeah,” Kate took him up; “It sounds so exotic and mysterious, but it’s actually very literal. Its roots literally mean—”

“—A good death,” they said simultaneously, and laughed.

“Hartshorn’s another one I like,” Marco said. It was unfamiliar to Kate; she wrinkled her face up playfully, like a child eating an unusual food. “It would make sense to pronounce it hart’s horn – which is what it comes from – but instead you say it hartshorn, like someone’s shaving the poor animal – a denuded deer!”

Kate giggled. “I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t know what hartshorn is.”

There was no need to be embarrassed, Marco assured her. “Probably no one else here does either. It’s what they used to get ammonia from, the horns of male deer.”

“You learned this studying chemistry?”

“No, from writers like Shakespeare and Melville. Literature is full of references to these arcane substances: wormwood, ambergris, hartshorn.”

Wormwood: a plant extract from members of the genus Artemisia; used in the preparation of absinthe and other intoxicants.

Ambergris: French for ‘grey amber’; a fragrant, biliary concretion that forms in the intestines of sperm whales; used in the making of perfume.

Kate couldn’t remember the last time Chad had read a serious book for pleasure. His favourite recreations consisted of watching television and surfing the Net for bargains on Star Trek memorabilia. (To Chad: “I mean, how many replica phasers and tricorders does one household really need?”) When he didn’t have to work, going to the bank and buying groceries in the same day were major exertions, which put him in no very amiable mood.

And yet here was a guy who was doing post-doctoral work in chemistry, and still had enough brainpower left over not only to read the great books but to remember the most obscure details of their diction, and could affably converse for hours on this and a range of other topics. She was more than a little charmed, and they spent most of the rest of the evening together before he and Nick departed around midnight.

After the party, Nick teased his friend about why he hadn’t asked for Kate’s number. Marco thought it would have been a bit presumptuous, but he admitted he was interested in seeing her again. This began a relay of information from Nick to Calie and from Calie back to Marco through Nick, which is how Marco became aware of the Chad contingency.

But as it happened, Kate was also interested in reconnecting.

Thus, when a few days had passed and Kate asked Calie if she thought it would be “weird” to get in touch with him, Calie said, without a moment’s hesitation: “Yes. It’s only going to lead to a situation.”

The comment suggested such a sweeping policy of disengagement that, weeks later, it still made Kate laugh when she thought about its myriad potential applications:

You are faced with a new job offer:

“Don’t take that job. It’s only going to lead to a situation.”

You discover a lump in your breast:

“Don’t go to the doctor. It’s only going to lead to a situation.”

You meet a guy at a party who’s funnier and smarter, more literate and more alive than the guy you’ve been with for half a dozen years, and you want to start hanging out with this paragon as a ‘friend’:

“Don’t get friendly with that guy. It’s only going to lead to a situation.” 

“…Especially since he’s expressed interest in you,” Calie had added.

The second relay began, and the notion that the mutual interest between Marco and Kate could “only lead to a situation” made its way back to Nick via Calie, and to Marco via Nick. The guys agreed that this was patronizing. Marco and Kate were adults. They could decide what sort of relationship was possible without condescending admonitions or outside interference. He decided to bypass her friends and track her down directly, finding her work e-mail address in about 0.0013842 seconds on Google. Marco was not out to break up her relationship with Chad, but if that was what would ultimately transpire, he wouldn’t accept any blame either. He took a ‘philosophical’ approach: if a woman is tempted and acts on that temptation, it’s her responsibility. It says as much about the weakness of the relationship she’s in as it does about the strength of that new temptation. Chad was not even a consideration.

Quite independently, Kate had also decided to ignore Calie’s warning. So when it arrived she responded immediately and enthusiastically to Marco’s e-mail, which led to a series of coffee ‘dates’ over the next month and a half.

So when Marco said, vaguely, that he needed to talk to her about something, and could she meet him at the Java Stop inside Booknells – a day before his early January birthday, no less – she had allowed herself to ratchet up by an optimistic quantum or two her reserve supplies of hope. She sat feebly wrapping the hardback tome in tissue paper, which kept tearing on the book’s reinforced corners. As the paper shredded in her hands, she began to panic. No amount of tape – and she had an ample supply on hand; she was nothing if not prepared – could rescue the presentation now. She briefly contemplated running to the drugstore downstairs to buy proper wrapping paper, but Marco would be arriving any second now, and the last thing she wanted was to appear sweaty and flustered. She tore off the pathetic scraps of coloured tissue and discarded them, putting the book back in its industrial-strength bag. In a brief access of self-confidence she rationalized: ‘If he really cares about me, it won’t matter whether it’s wrapped or not.’ All the same, she made sure she had the receipt safely stowed in her purse.

So, back into the store and over to the coffee bar. She got herself a latté and secured the most private table she could find along a wall decorated with improbably cheerful pictures of exotic, underpaid but colourfully dressed coffee growers. This would still put them nearly elbow-to-elbow with half a dozen other café denizens: sluggish shoppers perusing magazines and the international newspapers in the after-Christmas and post-New Year slump of under-consumption.

Marco arrived a few minutes later, his dark skin pinked by the cold. They exchanged greetings visually, and as he approached her little table she wasn’t sure whether to stand for a hug or to stay seated. She had only got up about halfway before he took his seat. She sat back down.

“Aren’t you having anything?” Kate asked, bemused.

“Uh…” Marco wasn’t sure, looking up with squinting eyes at the quaint chalkboard menu. “Yeah, I don’t know. I’ve had a ton of coffee over the holidays. Maybe I’ll get a juice.”

He stood up and went over to the bar. Kate shuffled her coat and bag about a little, tucking the book out of Marco’s view.

The safety seal on his juice popped behind her as he opened it, mid-stride, and sat back down. He drank nearly half the bottle in one slug.

“So how was your Christmas?” he asked her. “Did you get any good loot?”

“Yeah, I got some nice books from my mom and my sister,” she said with genuine warmth; “Chad bought me slippers and some movie passes,” she said with obvious displeasure. “What about you?”

Marco reported briefly on his holiday haul, which was always generous, but never quite added up to what one might receive if one’s birthday and Christmas didn’t fall within two weeks of each other.

“So, what’s on your mind?” Kate asked. “You said you had something you wanted to talk to me about.”


Kate would never have been the one to initiate an affair. But she’d been in deep negotiations with herself for the last several weeks, and she had arrived at what she felt was a morally acceptable compromise: Chad wasn’t giving her what she needed, so if Marco made his interest clear, she wouldn’t rebuff it. But she had started to fear he was too passive, that even if he wanted to he wouldn’t take the lead. She took his sudden request to meet again for coffee as a sign that he might, finally, be ready to take this step, and she was not above helping nudge him in the right direction. That a wide-open café set within a heavily frequented bookstore was hardly an ideal location for such an illicit transaction hadn’t even crossed her mind.

“I guess…” Marco said, “I guess I just wanted to say that I don’t feel like I can continue seeing you… like this.”

“You mean…?” – still working its way through several filters in her brain – “I’m not sure I know what you mean.”

“I just mean… it’s too intense, hanging out one-on-one. Don’t get me wrong, I like you. I enjoy your company. But I find I’m a lot more comfortable these days socializing in small groups. Hanging out one-on-one all the time is just too much like dating.” 

“So you’d like to keep seeing me, but with other people, or…?”

“Well, yeah, sure… but…”

“But you’d prefer…?”

“I’d prefer…” (He’d prefer not to have to do this.)

Marco had decided on the second of their pseudo-dates that he wasn’t interested in her romantically. The laws of attraction are mechanical, immutable, and he just wasn’t feeling it. As a chemist, he knew that certain elements could not be combined, or – if forced – would only form the most unstable of compounds. As far as Marco was concerned, the ‘situation’ that her friends had been so concerned would develop was neutered from the start. But he enjoyed her company, found her articulate and amusing, and with little female companionship to fill up his free time, he had continued to see her.

And soon enough, the telltale signs of a passive slide toward infidelity had begun to appear: the standard lament about Chad’s lack of ambition, the sheer amount of time they spent talking about the dissatisfactions of her relationship, and the invitation all of this implied. Not that Marco failed to read these signs or totally refused the invitation. They had made a policy of only meeting in public, which they thought would help to ‘lead them not into temptation’ and to stave off the starting of any rumours.

But at the end of their last coffee date, just before Christmas, Marco had proposed they go back to his place, and Kate accepted. They made some idle and unusually stilted chit-chat, and then settled on watching a dvd from Marco’s small but carefully selected cache. At the end of the evening, the gaps in the conversation got longer, the direction less clear, and Marco finally suggested that they should probably call it a night. She interpreted this as gentlemanly honour, rather than disinterest, and remained undaunted in her ultimate aspirations. As Kate was getting her coat on and Marco was waiting politely in the halogen-lit hall of his small condo, she decided to take the uncustomarily bold step of giving him a kiss – on the lips. Marco flinched backward a little as she came toward him, and then submitted, returning the kiss with just enough kindly affection to keep the signals hopelessly mixed. 

In his perennial naïveté, the latitude with which two people can interpret the same innocuous gestures had once again caught him by warrantless surprise. A pattern had formed in his life, a pattern of broken friendships with women, the inevitable result of asymmetrical emotional investments, and with that kiss he realized the pattern was asserting itself – again. Kate was too obviously looking for an escape route from her relationship, the past-due date on which had obviously elapsed. The friendship, it was now clear to Marco, had to be terminated with all due haste, while he could still hope to contain, or dodge, the emotional shrapnel.

In short, it had become ‘a situation.’

“I’d prefer…” he said again, not at all sure he could actually say what he would prefer.

“You’d prefer,” she said in a whisper, her leg pressing his birthday book to the wall, “that we could actually date? Is that what you’re saying?”

Marco sat helplessly.

“No… I mean…”

He could have ended it with an e-mail, but he was just paranoid enough to think it was safer to do it face-to-face and leave no damning data trail. Now he was thinking of bailing, or bluffing his way through, and sending an e-mail anyway. He tried to avoid her searching look, the awkwardness of feeling that the wash of blue behind her corneas was still coloured as much by cheerful anticipation as by despairing confusion. His only hope was to redirect the conversation with a gentle jolt.

“Have you noticed how much time we spend talking about Chad?”

“Well, sure, a fair bit, I guess. You think it’s too much?”

“Well, yeah… it makes me a little uncomfortable that we spend half the time we’re together talking about how unhappy you are with your partner. When we first met we talked about all sorts of things. Now everything seems to be filtered through your resentment of Chad.”

Kate was flummoxed.

“I don’t know what to say. Chad’s a big part of my life, and not a very supportive part of my life at the moment. You and I are friends. Aren’t those the sorts of things friends talk about?”

“Sure. But it puts me in a difficult position. And it sets me to wondering what sort of things you say about me when I’m not around. Who does Chad think I am?”

Marco actually cared very little. What was said about him behind his back, or what Chad thought of him, were matters of indifference. With minimal self-awareness, he thought, you can pretty much guess what things people say about you – what they admire, what they disparage – and it is pure vanity to be shocked when you find out what is actually said. He was merely stalling for time.

There was a little script in Marco’s head that went as follows: The perverse obligation of an asymmetrical friendship is that the less emotionally invested person has to end it for the other person’s sake. God forbid that friend experiences some sort of crisis and turns to you for the most intimate kind of help, thinking mistakenly that you are a closer friend than you really are. The consequences – for them – could be devastating. Which is why you have to end it before such a situation can arise – briskly, bluntly, since the more you talk about it, the more this suggests a deeper investment on your part than actually exists. The problem, of course, is that the more heavily invested friend doesn’t want to end it; they want to extend it and deepen it indefinitely.

Kate was following an entirely other, more optimistic script. Her face softened with apparent understanding.

“Oh, Marco, I’m sorry. I get it. God, I get it, finally – though I’m a little hurt that you don’t trust me more than that by now.” She was still speaking in hushed tones. “But, you know, there’s a simple way you can stop hearing about him.” She moved her hand across the table and placed it on his.

Marco retracted his hand sharply, and said in a curt whisper – one uncharacteristically fell verbal swoop –,

“No, you’re not getting it. I don’t want to turn this friendship into something else. I’m trying to end it.”

He looked around quickly to see if this had elicited any reaction from those around them. There were a few lazy glances in their direction. He told her that he was sorry and that he was going to leave now, getting up as inconspicuously as he could manage, and leaving his half-bottle of juice standing on the table.

Surrounded by books and by strangers, her dignity required that she experience this rejection at a distance, as if from behind a wall of specialized language – at least until she could get somewhere quiet and minimally private to properly fall apart. Unlike the names of arcane substances, there weren’t quite so many exotic words from a remote and romantic past to describe how Kate felt at that moment. ‘Crestfallen’ was perhaps the most poetic, an evocative and appealingly literal word – if only she could make herself invisible behind her drooping crest. But that didn’t quite capture it.

She felt as if she had bundled all of her hope and vulnerability up in a little package and mounted it delicately on her chest – a second heart – for the right man, a hero of affection, to take it up, place it in safekeeping within his own breast, and make her his own. She had thought Marco might prove to be that man. But instead he had, like a callous barber, chopped it off and let it cascade to the floor.

That, she thought, is how I feel:


This act of naming abstracted the hurt just long enough for her to make her escape. She stood up with as much composure as she could manage and returned to the cashier’s station.

“I’d like to return this,” she said, thumping the book onto the counter, and got the receipt out of her purse.

The cashier looked at her with mild surprise, but said nothing. She’d been watching the two of them intermittently at the café.

“No refunds, right?” Kate said with adequately subdued hostility.

“That’s right, Miss.”

She swiftly processed the transaction, handed Kate a store credit for a little more than fifty dollars, and stopped herself in the midst of telling Kate to ‘have a nice…’

Kate stepped out once again into the mirror-lined corridor, still moderately crowded with bargain hunters. She wasn’t due home for another three hours. Chad knew where she was and who she was meeting. He hadn’t even paid her the compliment of becoming jealous.

She paused, face flushed, stared down at her salt-skirted boots, and then got on the escalator heading up to the cinemas. She fished one of Chad’s movie passes out of her purse, got a ticket to the most saccharine comedy that was showing, found an isolated seat at the back of the theatre, and cried all the way through.



Copyright © P. D. Walter (2005, 2015)